So the Braves are rested at a time of year when rest is hard to come by, as they waited in the wings while it all revved up this week, watching the postseason form around them. But they are rested because they are relatively untested, which also makes them relatively unproven, and neither of those traits is all too useful heading into a National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday.
“It was just exciting to watch it all,” Braves Game 1 starter Mike Foltynewicz said at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. “Especially the last game of the season, Game 163 [for] all four of those teams was dang exciting.”
But because those games were so exciting to watch — the Milwaukee Brewers beating the Cubs on Monday, the Dodgers beating the Rockies right after, then the Rockies beating the Cubs on Tuesday night — they were also more exciting to play in, a different vibe than the 162 regular season games that came before, something most of these young Braves have yet to experience. The Dodgers battled the Rockies, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, in the NL West for all of September and into the first day of October. The Brewers, facing the Rockies in the other NLDS, did the same with the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. All those teams have been playing in a playoff-type atmosphere for weeks now, while the upstart Braves coasted to an NL East title as the Philadelphia Phillies reeled down the stretch and a thinned Washington Nationals never made their push.
The Braves have been waiting for the games to matter more, for a good while now, even if they insisted Wednesday that every day is approached the same way.
“All we do is sit around and watch baseball,” Braves reliever Luke Jackson joked in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, as reporters filled the cramped space and the players watched the American League wild-card game on overhead TVs. “That’s it. That’s all we do."
Then on Thursday, at 8:07 p.m. Eastern time, the Braves will play their first playoff game since 2013. That means it will also be the first crack at the postseason for most of their young core, for NL Rookie of the Year candidate Ronald Acuna Jr., for 20-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, for 27-year-old center fielder Ender Inciarte, and so on. Those are the players who lifted the Braves out of preseason irrelevance, into a midsummer surge past the Nationals and Phillies, and now into the playoffs as the NL’s least heralded team.
They finished with a 16-12 record in September, after finishing with a 17-13 record in August, but kept enough of a rhythm while the Nationals and Braves stumbled to the end. The Braves aren’t exactly “peaking at the right time,” that cliche often thrown around whenever postseasons start. They will need to find their spark again, and find it fast.
“I just don’t want them to do anything different than what they’ve done, because what they’ve done is good enough, you know?” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said Wednesday of whether his team needs to find a new level. “Just to play with that emotion and aggression and the energy that they’ve been doing. And I’ve been here in playoff scenarios before, and there’s not going to be any shortage of those guys getting amped up and being ready to go. Just let it fly.”
The Dodgers, on the other hand, are stacked with most of the players who helped them to the World Series last fall. They added star shortstop Manny Machado at the trade deadline. They are on the other end of the experience spectrum and, unlike in recent seasons, when they too coasted into October, they had to fight for a playoff spot down the stretch.
They will turn to lefty Hjun-Jin Ryu on Thursday — a surprise given ace Clayton Kershaw’s usual spot as their Game 1 starter — while the right-handed Foltynewicz will take the mound for the Braves.
“It was a grind to get into the playoffs this year. Colorado kept it close all year. Arizona kept it close all year,” Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger said Wednesday. “In the past, we had 10 games plus lead every time. So we were kind of cruising into September and October and this year we had to win. And I think that’s good for us. Like I said, I think we got hot at the right time. We’re hot right now and hopefully we keep that going into the Series.”
The Braves will now see if they are hot, where their energy stands, how ready they are for a moment that is foreign until it smacks you in the face. On Wednesday night, they ambled onto the Dodger Stadium field just after 7 p.m. with their gloves on and bats in hand. That is a standard time for first pitch, when their bodies are conditioned to flick on and compete, burned into their biological clocks across the last six months. Except here the stands were empty, there were no music or cheers, the only sounds were baseballs hitting mitts and laughter beneath the ballpark’s lights.
This was just a casual workout, one more piece of preparation, but soon it will finally be their turn. And then every out will count, and every pitch will matter a little more.